Spreading Tolerance with a Pot & a Lens

By Noor Nasser

Lebanese-American author, photographer and food consultant Barbara Abdeni Massaad is striving to change lives through her work.

In an exclusive interview with Family Flavours, she talks to us about how cooking, photography and social media come together to inspire humanitarian action around the world.

Food and a multicultural family

Family Flavours: In what ways has being a refugee shaped your personality, and impacted your life decisions professionally?

Massaad: I immigrated to the United States at the age of 10 and grew up helping my father at his Lebanese restaurant in Florida. It was hard at the beginning, as I did not speak a word of English. A year later, I was American and very much at ease. Being Lebanese-American gives you so many advantages because you learn the best of both cultures and take or leave different aspects, depending on what suits you. It helped me in my work too, as I see the world from an American point of view most of the time, thus a generic product like the manqousheh (pizza-like dough with thyme and olive oil) was very special to me as a cookbook author. Everyone in Lebanon, including my friends, did not believe I could actually write a whole book on the topic. The book is now sold in the United States.

Family Flavours: Tell us about your family. Do you involve them in your work?

Massaad: I am married and have three children: Albert (20), who is studying culinary arts at Bocusse in Lyon; Maria (18), who is studying graphic design in Barcelona and loves to paint; and Sarah (16), who is in her last year of high school and wants to study psychology in the United Kingdom. They have been a great part of my journey and I feel they have learned a lot from traveling around Lebanon with me and traveling with their father and me to different countries around the world.

Family Flavours: What do you look for in a family-friendly dining experience?

Massaad: The menu should not change just because kids are part of the dining experience. My children have tasted all foods from the beginning and that has made them more adventurous to taste foods from all countries. I don’t believe in feeding children junk food. Food is an education that starts from the very beginning of their lives. I remember putting red chilli pepper in all the food I cooked for years. One day, my youngest daughter asked me to cut down on the spicy flavours and I listened to her. The next day, she complained that the food was bland and asked me to bring back the red chilli!

Food and refugees

Family Flavours: What inspired you to draw attention to refugees through cookbooks?

Massaad: I am a mother first, followed by everything else. So, when I saw families torn apart because of war, especially children suffering, I had to act on it somehow. It could happen to any of us and it has. I wanted to send a message to the world that refugees are no different from anyone else; they have basic needs: food, shelter, dignity, hope.

Family Flavours: Soup for Syria received a lot of positive reviews. What were your expectations for this project?

Massaad: I did not have high expectations, but thanks to the great support of my American publisher Michel Moushabeck, who believed in the project, the book became recognized worldwide. It is published in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany and soon in Portugal and Turkey.

Family Flavours: Soup for Syria is more than a cookbook – can you elaborate on the imagery that plays a large role in the book?

Massaad: Images sometimes speak louder than words. I wanted to show the readers what refugees felt and what they looked like. The aim was not to portray them in war-torn images, but to give them dignity through beautiful images.

Family Flavours: Why did you decide to devote this cookbook entirely to soup?

Massaad: Soup is a comfort food, it’s international and it’s always part of a family meal. I have always had a weakness for soup. It nourishes the body and the soul.

Family Flavours: How did you find and coordinate with the chefs who contributed recipes in Soup for Syria?

Massaad: I am part of an important worldwide organisation called Slow Food. Throughout the years, I have made many friends in the field. I proposed the idea to them and they all agreed. I also asked strangers, Facebook friends, local friends and family members – basically anyone who was willing to share her or his favourite recipes. We tested over 200 recipes and chose the best. I created a Facebook page called Soup for Syria and people just started contacting me from all over.*

Family Flavours: So many people around us are refugees – what do you hope readers take away from your work?

Massaad: Tolerance. By doing what you love to do, you can bring positive change to this world. You can be a barber and go cut people’s hair for free. Anyone can make a change with his or her talents.

Food and cultural heritage

Family Flavours: Some of your cookbooks are quite heavy and large. Is this intentional?

Massaad: I have so much to say. It is not intentional, but the data I have collected throughout the years needs to be shared. I don’t write books with a commercial objective: I write them to teach and share the experiences and adventures I live with and the food of my country. My aim is to safeguard our heritage for future generations.

Family Flavours: Few women are in the formal workforce in Jordan. But there’s a large informal sector, especially when it comes to food, with many mothers working from home and utilizing social media. What advice do you have for them?

Massaad: I advise them to continue, because if we lose their knowledge, we lose everything. The most important thing for them is to document their work, as I have done in my book Mouneh in Lebanon.

Family Flavours: What are your next steps?

Massaad: I am consulting for international and local concept developers in the Food and Beverage sector and working on developing the website for Slow Food Beirut (www.slowfoodbeirut.com). I would also like to finish two books I have in mind: Lebanese recipes and research on our local dairy sector, insh’Allah (God willing)! I would also like to continue teaching and learning… It’s never ending!

*Chef Joe Barza was interviewed by Family Flavours in June this year and our very own Sana’ Qusous Awad’s recipes are also featured in Soup for Syria